NORTHERN TIBET

NORTHERN TIBET

NORTHERN TIBET lies mostly in Nagqu (Nakchu) Prefecture and embraces Nagqu city, Lake Namtso and the Chang Tang Reserve. Nagqu is the largest city north of Lhasa. It is serviced by the Qinghai-Tibetan railway Railway. Websites: Travel China Guide Travel Travel China Guide

Northern Tibet is rarely visited by tourists other than those passing throught on the Tibetan Railway. The climate is colder and harsher than elsewhere in Tibet. Namtso Lake is the main tourist sight. A lack of people makes it a great place to see wildlife such as Tibetan antelopes, wild donkeys, wolves, marmots, foxes, bears, and wild yaks. Some of the animals can be seen out of the window of Qinghai-Tibetan railway, which reaches its greatest height, over 5,000 meters, in the Tanggula mountains.

Nagqu (Nakchu) Prefecture borders Chamdo to the east, Ngari to the west, Lhasa, Nyingchi, and Shigatse to the south, and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and Qinghai province to the north. The Tanggula, Nyenchen Tanglha (Nyainqentanglha) and Kangdese mountains, and the snow-capped Dargo Mountain in the west and the Burgyi Mountain in the east embrace the prefecture, guarding the treasure land like two ferocious lions. See Below

Zhangzhung (Zhang Zhung, Xiangxiong or Shangshung) was an ancient culture and kingdom of western and northwestern Tibet, which pre-dates the culture of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet. Zhangzhung culture is associated with the Bon religion, which in turn, has influenced the philosophies and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Zhangzhung people are mentioned frequently in ancient Tibetan texts as the original rulers of central and western Tibet. Only in the last two decades have archaeologists been given access to do archaeological work in the areas once ruled by the Zhangzhung. See Below

Lake Region of Tibet

Tibet can be divided into two parts, the "lakes region" in the west and northwest, and the "river region", which lies to the east, south, and west of the “lakes region.”. Both regions receive limited precipitation because they are situated in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. The lake region has traditionally been inhabited by nomads and animal herders. The river region has traditionally been more agricultural with farmers growing crops in the river valleys.

The lake region extends from the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh, Lake Rakshastal, Yamdrok Lake and Lake Manasarovar near the source of the Indus River, to the sources of the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze. Other lakes include Dagze Co, Namtso, and Pagsum Co. This wind-swept 1,000-kilometer-wide desert is called Chang Tang. Chang Tang Reserve in northern Tibet is a 247,120-square-kilometer (115,000-square-mile) conservation area in one of the remotest areas in the world.. Larger than Arizona, it is the second largest nature reserve in the world after Greenland National Park Chang Tang is covered mainly with high pastures and is uninhabited except for a few nomadic yak headers. The average elevation in the reserve is between 15,000 and 17,000 feet. There are no trees or shrubs and the temperatures in the winter can drop below minus 40̊F. There are no river outlets. The mountain ranges are spread out, rounded, disconnected and separated by flat, shallow valleys. The reserve is designed to protect three species of animals: the Tibetan wild ass, the wild yak and the argali sheep. Chang Tang means “northern plains." Largely unexplored, it is home to snow leopard, ibex, Tibetan antelope (chiru), Tibetan wild ass, bharal or blue sheep (nawa na), black necked crane, wild yak, lynx, wolves and very rare Tibetan brown bear.

This part of Tibet AR is freckled with large and small lakes. Some are freshwater but most are salty or alkaline, intersected by streams. The spotty permafrost over the Chang Tang creates bogs with tussocks of grass that resembles the landscape of Siberian tundra. In dried lakes there are deposits of soda, potash, borax and salt. The lake region has numerous, widely-scatted hot springs that are known for producing columns of ice, where boiling water froze while rising out of the ground.

Siling Co Lake (300 kilometers northwest of Lhasa as the crow flies) is the second largest lake in Tibet and the third largest salt lake in China. In Tibetan, Siling Co means "devil lake." The lake covers 1,640 square kilometers at an elevation of 4,530 meters above sea level. The lake is part of a national nature reserve for black-necked cranes. The grasslands around the lake are vast and have traditionally used as grazing land.

Salt lakes have significantly larger amounts of salt and other minerals than freshwater lakes. Some of them even have a higher concentration of salt than sea water. When water evaporates from the lake, the salt is left behind, making salt lakes a great place for salt production. If the amount of water that evaporates from the lake is more than the water flowing into it, salt deposits will gradually form and create unique formations.

Namtso Lake

Namtso Lake (180 kilometers north of Lhasa)is one of the three holy lakes in Tibet along with Manasarovar Lake and Yamdrok Lake. Namtso (Lake Nam) means "Heavenly Lake." It is famous for its high altitude and beautiful scenery. The second largest salt lake in China, Namtso covers 1,920 square kilometers and is also the second-highest salt lake in altitude in the world at an elevation of 4,718 meters above sea level. By some measures it is highest major slat lake in the world. Admission: 120 yuan (50 yuan in the winter); Getting There: An organized tour is recommended.

Namtso is regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in Tibet. The lake is the center of a popular trekking area. Treks usually begin in Damxung (300 kilometers west of Lhasa). The first day of a week-long trek usually begin with a 3,000-foot climb along a dirt road to 17,000-foot Lanchen Pass. All around are 19,000-foot mountains and a barren landscape.

Along the route are nomads with herd of yaks and sheep, birds and occasional ferrets and marmots. From Lanchen Pass it is a long descent to the lake. On the southern shore in the distance are the two holy mountains of Tashi Dorje. The best time to go is in the summer or on Tibet New Year. Thousands of pilgrims travel a long way to worship here on the Tibetan New Year.

Namtso Lake Pilgrimage Route

Lying at the foot of Nyenchen Tanglha (Nyainqentanglha) Mountain, Namtso Lake is the seat of Paramasukha Chakrasamvara for Buddhist pilgrims. In the fifth and sixth month of the Tibetan calendar each year, many Buddhists come to the lake pay homage and pray. Deep tracks are worn into the lakeshore due to this activity. In history, monasteries stood like trees in a forest around the site, attracting large numbers of pilgrims as eminent monks in Buddhisttemples extended Buddhist teachings. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Buddhists believe Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Vajras will assemble to hold religious meeting at Namtso in the year of sheep on Tibetan calendar. It is said that walking around the lake at the right moment is 100,000 times more efficacious than that in normal years. That's why thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the world come to pray at the site, with the activity reaching a climax on Tibetan April 15.

Walking around the lake takes a week. Ritual walkers love to burn aromatic plants to raise smoke on Auspicious Island [explain this a little] and throw a piece ofhadascarf into the lake as a token of fulfilled wishes. If the scarf sinks, it implies ones wish is accepted by the Buddha; if the scarf flows on the water or only half sinks, it means one has failed to be honest and something unhappy may lie ahead.

On the four sides of the lake stand four monasteries, which have Buddhist meanings. By the lake there are also two standing stone pillars, each rising 30 meters and eight meters apart. One has a crack large enough to hold a single person inside. Some Tibetans believe it is the Gate God of the Namtso Lake.

Five islets planted in the vast sapphire lake are said to be the incarnation of the Buddha of Five Directions. Every pilgrim walking around the lake will piously worship them. These islets are famous for their topography, covered by weird but vivid stones. Another five peninsula protrude into the lake and represent sites related to eminent monks, such as temples. On the north bank of the lake is the Zhaxi Peninsula, on which stands a forest of strange-shaped stones forged from calcium, among which occur numerous fantastic caves.

Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains

Nyenchen Tanglha (near Namtso Lake) is a 700-kilometer (430 mile) -long mountain range, in central-northern Tibet. Its highest point is 7,090 meter (23,260 ft) and located 100 kilometers (62 mile) northwest of Lhasa. A legend has it that Mt. Nyenchen Tanglha (Nyainqentanglha) and the Namtso Lake are lovers in Tibet's history. Melt snow from the mountain flows into the lake while the lake reflects the mountain.

Crossing Lhasa's Damxung County and Nagqu Prefecture's Pangkog County, Nyainqentanglha-Lake Namtso tourist zone features Tibetan culture, glaciers, snowy peaks and plateau lakes. Boasting complete distinct geographic structures and typical plateau climate, the area is also the home to many rare species of fauna and flora. [Source: Xinhua, January 6, 2010]

Forming as the crust sank two million years ago, the Namtso Lake lay at a much lower altitude above sea level in early ages. Resulting from the rise of the crust, less rainfall and more evaporation, the lake rose to the current elevation with its surface area exceeding 1,000 sq km. Now, it is Tibet's largest inland lake and China's second largest salty lake after the Qinghai Lake.

Nagqu Prefecture

Nagqu (Nakchu) Prefecture lies in the northern part of Tibet. It borders Chamdo to the east, Ngari to the west, Lhasa, Nyingchi, and Shigatse to the south, and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and Qinghai province to the north. The Tanggula, Nyenchen Tanglha (Nyainqentanglha) and Kangdese mountains, and the snow-capped Dargo Mountain in the west and the Burgyi Mountain in the east embrace the prefecture, guarding the treasure land like two ferocious lions.[Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Nagqu Prefecture has a population of about 450,000 people, with Tibetans making up the majority. It exercises jurisdiction over 10 counties and the Shuanghu Special Administrative Zone. The 10 counties include Nagqu, Amdo, Nyainrong, Biru, Jiali, Baqen, Sog, Pangkog, Xainza, and Nyima.

The Nagqu Prefectural Administration is located in Nagqu Town, a political, economic, cultural, and trading center as well as a transport hub of the autonomous region. Nagqu Town is also the collection and reshipment center for the region's animal products, mineral ores, and agricultural and forestry products.

Covering an area of some 400,000 square kilometers, Nagqu is generally referred to as Changtang; the area is high in the west and low in the east, with an average elevation of over 4,500 meters. The vast region of the central west is basically flat but dotted with hills and numerous lakes, and is crisscrossed by rivers.

There are high mountains surrounding the river valleys in the east, which is the farming region of northern Tibet. This area lies at an elevation of from 3,500 to 4,500 meters and also has forest resources and bush pasture, as well as a climate that is more equitable than that in the central west.

The annual growing season lasts for 100 days, and during this period the area receives 80 percent of its annual precipitation. At this time the grasslands are emerald and grazed by flocks of sheep. Nagqu falls within the sub-frigid zone and experiences extreme cold, a scarcity of oxygen, dry air, and storms. There are no absolutely frost-free periods. Nagqu has an annual average temperature ranging from -0.9 to -3.3 , an annual relative humidity of 48-51 percent, an annual precipitation of 380 mm, and an annual sunshine hour range of 2,852.6-2,881.7 hours. From November to March the air is dry, the temperature is low, and the area is exposed to violent sandstorms. From May to September, Nagqu is warm and enjoys good weather.

Chang Tang Reserve

Chang Tang Reserve (northern Tibet) is a 247,120-square-kilometer (115,000-square-mile) conservation area in one of the remotest areas in the world.. Larger than Arizona, it is the second largest nature reserve in the world after Greenland National Park

Chang Tang is covered mainly with high pastures and is uninhabited except for a few nomadic yak headers. The average elevation in the reserve is between 15,000 and 17,000 feet. There are no trees or shrubs and the temperatures in the winter can drop below minus 40̊F. The reserve is designed to protect three species of animals: the Tibetan wild ass, the wild yak and the argali sheep (a still unstudied species). Between the turn of the century and 1988 no Westerners had set foot in this area. Nyenchen Tanla mountain range, it has long been a destination of pilgrims and monks, some of whom sought isolation in the area's cave hermitages.

Chang Tang means “northern plains." Largely unexplored, it is home to snow leopard, ibex, Tibetan antelope (chiru), Tibetan wild ass, bharal or blue sheep (nawa na), black necked crane, wild yak, lynx, wolves and very rare Tibetan brown bear. See National Geographic, April 2002.

Qiangtang Grassland

Qiangtang, which means "northern highland," refers to the north Tibetan plateau. Located among the Kunlun, Tanggula and Gangdese Mountains, its land area covers two thirds of the whole of Tibet. Its total area is more than 600 thousand square kilometers, averaging about 4,500 meters above sea level. Cold, windy and snowy for eight or nine months a year, frozen land can be seen everywhere. An old folk song is sung like this: "The mysterious Qiangtang, it is so wild and desolate when you are here the first time; it becomes your lovely hometown when you get to know more." [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The north of Qiangtang Plateau is called No People Area, thus, the place — including north of the Gangdese Mountains, Nyainqen-tanggula Mountains and the wide area south of Kunlun Mountains --- is an ideal living area for rare animals, The Qiangtang Grassland features thousands of wild animals in the area. Forty of them have government protection. Such rare animals as Wild yaks, Bharals, Tibetan wild donkeys, White-lipped deer, are being well preserved in the area. Research is also being carried out.

In the reserve, there are vast prairies and glaciers, numerous mountains and lakes, hot springs, and terrestrial heats. The golden season is the period from June to September, during which the temperature can reach 7-12 C and the north of Tibetan plateau takes on spectacular views with gentle winds, mild sunshine, and lush grazing for large numbers of cattle and sheep.

It is also the main base for animal husbandry, having a large range of pasturelands and grass of high quality. The famous "plateau boat" Yak and Tibetan antelope live in the area. The herdsmen's homes are mostly located at the foot of the mountains and la kesi des. When summer comes, they put their simple packing on horseback, herding nomadically on the boundless prairie, their melodious songs accompanying their wandering footsteps. The herdsmen shake away the long loneliness by hard work and singing in nature's harshness, creating a beautiful and colorful life. Best time to go: August is the peak season for the Qiangtang Grassland. The Nagqu Qiangtang Horse-racing Festival is from August 10 to 16 every year.

Zhangzhung Kingdom

Zhangzhung (Zhang Zhung, Xiangxiong or Shangshung) was an ancient culture and kingdom of western and northwestern Tibet, which pre-dates the culture of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet. Zhangzhung culture is associated with the Bon religion, which in turn, has influenced the philosophies and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Zhangzhung people are mentioned frequently in ancient Tibetan texts as the original rulers of central and western Tibet. Only in the last two decades have archaeologists been given access to do archaeological work in the areas once ruled by the Zhangzhung.

The Zhangzhung Kingdom was the earliest civilization center on the Tibetan plateau. Zhangzhung means "land of the roc” in Tibetan. Roc is a huge mythical bird. According to historical records, before the rise of the Tubo Kingdom (629-846), the Zhangzhung Kingdom existed and flourished in western Tibet, living mainly on animal husbandry, with some agriculture. The kingdom even established ties with the Tang Dynasty in China's Central Plains. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The kingdom of Guge is associated with the Zhangzhung. According to Namkhai Norbu some Tibetan historical texts identify the Zhangzhung culture as a people who migrated from the Amdo region into what is now the region of Guge in western Tibet. Zhangzhung is considered to be the original home of the Bön religion. By the 1st century BC, a neighboring kingdom arose in the Yarlung Valley, and the Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo, attempted to remove the influence of the Zhangzhung by expelling the Zhang's Bön priests from Yarlung. He was assassinated and Zhangzhung continued its dominance of the region until it was annexed by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. Recently, a tentative match has also been proposed between the Zhangzhung and an Iron Age culture now being uncovered on the Changtang plateau in northwestern Tibet. [Source: Wikipedia]

Tradition has it that Zhangzhung consisted "of three different regions: sGob-ba, the outer; Phug-pa, the inner; and Bar-ba, the middle. The outer is what we might call Western Tibet, from Gilgit in the west to Dangs-ra khyung-rdzong in the east, next to lake gNam-mtsho, and from Khotan in the north to Chu-mig brgyad-cu rtsa-gnyis in the south. The inner region is said to be sTag-gzig (Tazig) [often identified with Bactria], and the middle rGya-mkhar bar-chod, a place not yet identified." While it is not certain whether Zhangzhung was really so large, it is known that it was an independent kingdom and covered the whole of Western Tibet. The capital city of Zhangzhung was called Khyunglung, the "Silver Palace of Garuda", southwest of Mount Kailash (Mount Ti-se), which is identified with palaces found in the upper Sutlej Valley.[5] [Source: Wikipedia]

History of the Zhangzhung Kingdom

Tibetan historical records show that the Zhangzhung Kingdom flourished in the 7th century, and contained a highly developed culture that included the unique Zhangzhung written language. It was also the cradle of Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion. The Xiangquan (Elephant Spring River) and Shiquan (Lion Spring River) valleys were its central regions. Zhangzhung culture, consisting of religion, characters, and medical science, occupies an important position in Tibet's civilization history. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

At the height of its power and splendor, the kingdom boasted extreme military power and occupied most of the Tibetan plateau, parts of today's Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, in Northwest and Southwest China respectively, and even the Ladak Kingdom (reputedly today's Kashmir).

Later, Tubo tribes grew increasingly stronger and conquered Zhangzhung in the 8th century. Hence, Zhangzhung together with its culture disappeared almost overnight, leaving no traces of its glorious past and highly developed civilization. Even today, historians are unable to identify the cultural legacies and ruins of the Zhangzhung civilization. The sudden disappearance of the Zhangzhung Kingdom still remains a mystery.

According to Rolf Alfred Stein, author of Tibetan Civilization, the area of Shang Shung was not historically a part of Tibet and was a distinctly foreign territory to the Tibetans: He wrote: “Then further west, the Tibetans encountered a distinctly foreign nation. - Shangshung, with its capital at Khyunglung. Mt. Kailāśa (Khailash, Tise) and Lake Manasarovar formed part of this country., whose language has come down to us through early documents. Though still unidentified, it seems to be Indo European. …Geographically the country was certainly open to India, both through Nepal and by way of Kashmir and Ladakh. Kailāśa is a holy place for the Indians, who make pilgrimages to it. No one knows how long they have done so, but the cult may well go back to the times when Shangshung was still independent of Tibet. How far Shangshung stretched to the north, east and west is a mystery…. We have already had an occasion to remark that Shangshung, embracing Kailāśa sacred Mount of the Hindus, may once have had a religion largely borrowed from Hinduism. The situation may even have lasted for quite a long time. In fact, about 950, the Hindu King of Kabul had a statue of Vişņu, of the Kashmiri type (with three heads), which he claimed had been given him by the king of the Bhota (Tibetans) who, in turn had obtained it from Kailāśa.”

Zhangzhung Kingdom Ruins

Zhangzhung Kingdom Ruins (Nyima County, Nagchu Prefecture, three hours drive from Nyima, 500 kilometers northwest of Lhasa) can now be visited. A legend says there are two ruins of the Zhangzhung Kingdom of the Bon. One set of ruins is the site of Zhangzhung's ancient capital, located in the Qionglong silver city in Zhada County, Ngari Prefecture. At the Zhada Clay Forest, there are many relics of early human caves and paintings on rocks. The famous Qionglong City was found in a basin surrounded by mountains. The ruins stand on a cliff, facing east and dotted with caves. The ruined walls and stones lend a mysterious atmosphere. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Another set of ruins is at Qongzon, near the Ombu Office in Nagqu, where many relics of the Zhangzhung Kingdom have been found, including a temple near the most sacred lake of the Bon followers. The ruins consist of many caves dug into the Daguo Mountains, covering one square kilometer. Old trees and caves on surrounding cliffs are the most striking features.

The Ngari Prefecture has opened a special route to the ancient Zhangzhung ruins, offering more chances to experience the grandness of this mysterious ancient kingdom. The 380-kilometer route runs through Burang and Zanda counties in the western part of Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. There are many ruins of the ancient kingdom along the way.Nevertheless, the Zhangzhung Civilization still remains a mystery.

Kunlun Mountains

The Kunlun Mountains comprise one of the longest mountain chains in Asia, extending for more than 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles). In a broad sense, the range forms the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau south of the Tarim Basin. Located in Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang, the Kunlun Shan sits to the south of the Gobi Desert, the Tarim Basin, Taklamakan Desert, the Altyn Tagh. and the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. The range has very few roads and in its 3,000 km length is crossed by only two. In the west, Highway 219 traverses the range en route from Yecheng, Xinjiang to Lhatse, Tibet. Further east, Highway 109 crosses between Lhasa and Golmud. [Range coordinates: 36°N 84°E]

The definition of the Kunlun Shan range varies and the origin of the name appears to come from a semi-mythical location in the classical Chinese text Classic of Mountains and Seas.. Ancient sources use the term to refer to a mountain belt in the center of China, taken to mean the Altyn Tagh and the Qilian and Qin Mountains. The great ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian (Records of the Grand Historian, scroll 123) said that Han Emperor Han Wudi (ruled 141-87 B.C.) sent men to find the source of the Yellow River and gave the name Kunlun to the mountains at its source. [Source: Wikipedia]

From the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the Kunlun Mountains run east along the border between Xinjiang and Tibet to Qinghai province. A number of important rivers flow from the range including the Karakash River ('Black Jade River') and the Yurungkash River ('White Jade River'), which flow through the Khotan Oasis into the Taklamakan Desert. Altyn-Tagh or Altun Range is one of the chief northern ranges of the Kunlun. Its northeastern extension Qilian Shan is another main northern range of the Kunlun. The main extension in the south is the Min Shan. Bayan Har Mountains, a southern branch of the Kunlun Mountains, forms the watershed the Yangtze River and the Yellow River basins.

The Kunlun Mountains highest point is 7,167 meter (23,514 foot) -high Liushi Shan (the Kunlun Goddess in the Keriya area in western Kunlun Shan. Some say the Kunlun extends to northwest and includes 7,649-meter-high Kongur Tagh and 7,546 meter-high Muztagh Ata but the these mountains are more associated with the Pamirs and kind of stand by themselves anyway. The Arka Tagh (Arch Mountain) lies in the center of the Kunlun Shan; its highest points are Ulugh Muztagh (6,973 m) and Bukadaban Feng (6,860 m). In the eastern Kunlun Shan the highest peaks are Yuzhu Peak (6,224 m) and Amne Machin [also Dradullungshong] (6,282 m); the latter is the eastern major peak in Kunlun Shan range and is thus considered as the eastern edge of Kunlun Shan range.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020


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